A brick of food dubbed Nutraloaf or Disciplinary Loaf — long reigning as the worst food in the worst corners of New York prisons — came to an end, a symbolic victory for inmate advocates and state officials seeking more humane, and more appetizing, treatment for prisoners.
ALBANY, N.Y. — Of all the punishments meted out upon prisoners in solitary confinement, the most unsavory may well be a misshapen 1-pound brick of cuisine.
It goes by several names — Nutraloaf and Disciplinary Loaf, among them — and the ingredients can vary. Pennsylvania prison chefs cooked up a chickpea version, while Illinois included ground beef and applesauce in its court-contested recipe, as well as other ingredients that do not usually go together.
The version in New York state prisons used a motley assortment of baking staples and hard-to-overcook vegetables, including shredded carrots and unskinned potatoes. It was served with little more than water, to choke it down, and cabbage as a side.
But under an agreement announced Wednesday, the loaf’s long reign as the worst food in the worst corners of New York prisons came to an end, a symbolic victory for inmate advocates and state officials seeking more humane, and more appetizing, treatment for prisoners.
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“We will eliminate the loaf,” said Alphonso David, the chief counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The menu modification is just one of a raft of changes to solitary-confinement policy announced by the Cuomo administration and applauded by supporters of prisoners’ legal and human rights, including improved living conditions and restrictions on the length of stays in small, isolated cells. “I view it as a tremendous step forward,” Karen Murtagh, director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, said of Wednesday’s announcement.
But experts say no change may have a more immediate impact on prisoners’ moods, and on those of the officers assigned to keep them behind bars, than the end of the so-called disciplinary-sanctioned restricted diet.
“Food is very important to prisoners in a deprived and harsh environment; it is one of the very few things they have to look forward to,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “And when you mess with prisoners’ food that leads to unhappy prisoners, which leads to management problems.”
Taste tests have generally ended up with spit-out food and comparisons to cardboard, packing material and other inedible offerings. Critics frequently invoke medieval rations of bread and water — a dietary regimen that has been embraced by some hard-line law-enforcement officials in recent years.
But some former prisoners who were punished with such meals chose to go hungry rather than eat the loaf.
“I would taste it and just throw it away,” said George Eng, 67, who served 36 years for murder and several stints in Special Housing Units, as solitary confinement is formally known. “You’d rather be without food than eat that.”
Murtagh called the loaf “a disgusting, torturous form of punishment that should have been banned a century ago.”
“Most people are appalled at using food as punishment,” she said, adding that many people believe “such behavior went out with the stocks, whips and shackling to the wall.”
The inglorious gastronomical history of the loaf dates back decades, and legal challenges to it and other prison food have percolated through the courts for years. In a 1978 Supreme Court case, Hutto v. Finney, a group of Arkansas prisoners successfully sued over their conditions, including being fed “grue,” an exotic dish made by mashing together meat, potatoes, syrup, vegetables, eggs and margarine, and then hard-baking it in a pan. (The court found the “grue diet” had caused many prisoners to lose weight, perhaps because they did not want to eat something called “grue.”)
For its part, New York’s recipe — baked at each prison that so punished inmates — was simple, vegetarian and often industrial scaled: two types of flour (whole wheat and all-purpose), two types of milk (1 percent and dried), yeast, salt, potatoes, carrots, margarine and a big scoop of sugar (presumably to counteract the intense blandness of the other ingredients).
Indeed, for those who have tasted the loaf, cleansing the palate can be tough.
“It’s like dense, heavy, not bread, but something akin to bread but with no leavening,” said Jean Casella, a co-director of Solitary Watch, a watchdog group on solitary confinement, who tried the loaf and was surprised by how sugary it was. “It’s something that would sit in your stomach like a rock. I ate a tiny piece of it, and wouldn’t want to go any further than that.”
Reserved for prisoners in solitary confinement who have already lost their other privileges, the loaf was often used to punish those who had engaged in toddlerlike behavior — throwing food, for example, or bodily waste. Refusing to obey orders from corrections officers during mealtime could also result in loaf lunches (and breakfasts and dinners, too) for up to 14 days.
In recent years, the state drastically reduced the number of prisoners subjected to the restricted diet, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which also noted the loaf and cabbage prix fixe had still provided “all the appropriate nutrients required in an inmate’s diet,” and about 3,000 calories a day. The state made dietary exceptions for Passover, and Jewish inmates were given kosher loaves baked at Green Haven Correctional Facility.
The meal that is replacing the loaf is hardly luxurious, but it does include a piece of fresh fruit, two slices of American cheese, two hard-boiled eggs and four slices of bread for breakfast. The lunch and dinner menu adds two slices of lunch meat and coleslaw in place of the eggs. (No substitutions allowed.)
New York’s decision to dump the loaf comes as such dietary sanctions have been on the wane nationwide, said Laurie Maurino, president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates. Maurino, a registered dietitian who oversees prison feeding for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said her state no longer uses the loaves, though some county jails do.
After all, forcing inmates to eat the loaf could amount to a constitutional violation, Maurino added. “It is considered,” she said, “cruel and unusual punishment.”
RECIPE FOR NUTRALOAF
Following is the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s recipe for Nutraloaf. This recipe makes 50 loaves.
5 pounds whole wheat flour
20 pounds all-purpose flour
1½ gallons milk, 1 percent
8 ounces fast active dry yeast
4 pounds sugar
2 ounces salt
2½ pounds powdered milk, nonfat
2 pounds margarine
5 pounds shredded potatoes (with skin)
2 pounds shredded carrots
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat milk to 105 degrees, then add sugar, salt and yeast. Let stand for five minutes. Add both flours and dry milk, then mix. Add margarine, potatoes and carrots. Mix for 10 minutes. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise. Grease and flour loaf pans and add dough. Bake loaves for 40 to 45 minutes.